Most female nerds, geeks, weebs, or whatever you want to call us often find ourselves at a crossroads early on in our interest development. That is because there comes a time in every nerd girl’s life when she realizes that the things she loves… aren’t made for her. Or at least they aren’t directed for her viewership. Whether it be due to the writing, directing, or fan culture of most “geeky” media (ie. video games, science fiction movies/ novels, and anime), it becomes quite difficult to stay resilient in a community that sees female involvement as, at best, foreign and, at worst, unwanted.
Most of what harms the women in fanbase spaces is the nerd gatekeeping culture that surrounds so much of the media. For those unaware, gatekeeping in popular culture is the act of a fanbase or members of a fanbase limiting who they qualify as a true fan or think is able to become a real fan. Very often anime, comic book, science fiction, fantasy, and video game fanbases direct this gatekeeping energy toward anyone who does not match the basic white, male stereotype those industries often attract, meaning women and other minority groups are often downplayed as fake fans and outcasts in the media they enjoy. Women in these various fan bases are often seen as only taking part in nerdy activities as a way of impressing men. I have had friends spend hundreds of dollars on video game or anime cosplay only to be told they were doing it for male attention. Trust me, I do not stay up late at night reading deep Darth Vader character analysis and lore to be seen as desirable. I definitely have not watched thousands (yes, thousands) of episodes of animes like One Piece, Naruto, and Dragon Ball Z so men would like me more or think I was quirkily attractive. Women are just simply not seen as capable of being as true of fans as men. Other forms of pop culture perpetuate this stereotype as well: cue Penny from the Big Bang Theory saying there is no difference between Star Wars and Star Trek -- and the laugh track ensues. Alternatively, when women are somewhat accepted as “true fans,” they are still assumed to be products of their fathers or brothers which still, somehow, works to discredit them. Girl fans are seen as a myth -- but we’re here. We’re actually prevalent.
However, gender conflicts within fanbases aren’t limited to fandom culture, and can often be widely seen on screen or in the pages of the sought after media as well. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings novels / movies are powerhouses in the fantasy genre (and for good reason); however, not a single movie passes the Bechdel Test -- a simple test requiring a movie to have two named women characters that speak to each other at least once about anything other than a man. It is a very simple test, and, yet, like many other big name fantasy and science fiction works, it fails. The entire main and almost entire supporting cast for these movies are male, yet the Lord of the Rings is not seen as male fiction or even male centric. It is just... fantasy fiction. If this was reversed, however, no doubt the novels would be targeted as Feminist Fantasy or critiqued for “forced” diversity. This is because the mere existence of women (and other members of racial minorities, religious groups, and the LGBTQ+ community) is seen as inherently political. The addition of lady characters like Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor in Doctor Who or Laura Kinney and Riri Williams taking up the mantles of Wolverine and Iron Man respectively are viewed by many within the fanbases as forced social justice instead of what it truly is -- bringing a fresh face to a classic character. The mantel of Green Lantern, Captain America, Venom, and even Batman are all super and anti hero names that have been passed around before with minor controversy and, in some cases, absolute praise. These women, on the contrary, are hated not because the character has been changed -- but because the character has been changed to a woman. Blatant and rampant misogyny dominates these fanbases against both the female characters and the real life creators and fans who are so often accused of “making everything about them” just by existing.
As time goes on, however, ladies in fanbases for video games, animes, comic books, or anything else, are forced to almost ignore the misogyny that stems not just from their fellow viewers, but from the actual subject of their interest. Women become almost desensitized to sexist themes and undertones solely for the purpose of continuing to enjoy their favorite content without having to feel inherently ostracized. It is a foreign concept to no one that representation is wildly important to viewers, yet the representation given to women is often worse than none being given at all. So often women must watch lady characters be broken down only ever to be the love interest, a throw away stereotype, or mere road block on our hero's journey.
The most common stereotype seen throughout nerd media is probably the single girl archetype. This is where one woman is forced to represent her entire gender in the movie or tv show she features in. You may recognize her in trios -- think Hermoine from Harry Potter, Misty from Pokemon: Indigo League, Wonder Woman in the DC universe, Princess Leia in Star Wars, and Naruto’s Sakura Haruno. While her male counterparts are given at least a bit of diversity of personality - whether that be edgy vs. innocent, smart vs. dumb, or any other spectrum of character, - she is alone in singular womanhood. It of course isn’t limited to single girls in trios, as single girl characters also include Arcee from Transformers, Bulma from Dragon Ball, LT Nyota Uhora from Star Trek, and the list goes on. Because of this, it seems almost unanimous across the board that these women and girls are either overly sexualized or overly hated by the fanbase -- who sometimes even call for her to be killed off, disregarding her role as representative for an entire gender. Not surprisingly, this environment takes a toll on its female fans. I know personally I have found myself on multiple social media platforms writing paragraphs upon paragraphs for hours on end arguing on behalf of single girls that I may not even particularly like, but still feel the need to defend. It’s hard not to see yourself in a character that is the only one of a whole cast that looks like you; when she is getting attacked, it’s difficult for it to not feel personal.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the plethora of representation of ladies who end up becoming nothing more than “women in refrigerators.” “Women in refrigerators” is a term coined by female comic book writer Gail Simone to describe an extremely prevalent trend of lady characters who are harmed, or even killed, to further their male counterpart’s plot line; this is also known as being “fridged”, or “fridging” a character. This is where we find Sansa Stark (among many other women in Game of Thrones), Gwen Stacy from the Amazing Spider-Man, and, recently, Gamora from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yet again women in the audience are forced to ignore sexist plot lines so they can still enjoy their video game, anime, or comic book because if I’m being honest it gets hard to cherry pick the stories that don’t abuse, mistreat, or assault its female characters solely because they are seen as disposable. It’s just too prevalent.
I loved the movie The Killing Joke. In fact, I watched the movie three times when it came out, and thoroughly enjoyed the comic. It was Mark Hamill’s last serious role as the Joker. It was when Batman was finally going to go off the edge. It was one of the greatest portrayals of the clown prince of crime himself -- otherwise known as the Joker -- that film and comic had ever seen. Before watching and reading, however, I had to prepare myself for one of the most famous cases of fridging to date -- the paralyzing and assault of Batgirl, aka Barbra Gordon, all so Batman finally had a reason to go off the edge. That is one single example, but cases like those mentioned, where women are expected to downplay their own suffering just to watch a movie, are scattered around these industries.
At the end of the day, however, different forms of media aren’t gendered. Specific interests -- like gender itself -- are more nuanced than the binary girl or boy. One of my favorite movies is Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the movie that brought us dancing, slave girls and, most famously, Carrie Fisher in a metal bikini. Yet, another of my favorite movies is Pride and Prejudice, the movie based off of Jane Austen’s classic feminist novel of the same name. Co-existing next to each other is an intense action flick with exploding spaceships and light swords and a soft, feminine film about romance and society (that isn't to say Star Wars doesn’t also have beautiful, story driven layers because, believe me, it does!). This duality, however, doesn’t compromise my nerdiness or my femininity. Women aren’t categorical, and, against the beliefs of some, we can enjoy multiple things at once.
The fact of the matter is, no matter what gatekeeping or misogynist virtues may still linger in nerd, geek, weeb, or whatever else communities, they would never be where they are without the women who guided them. We wouldn’t even have modern science fiction without Mary Shelly. Gaming wouldn’t be the same without Joyce Weisbecker’s work in the 1970’s. Mangakas like Naoka Takeuchi (creator of Sailor Moon), Hiromu Arakawa (creator of FullMetal Alchemist), and Rumiko Takashi (creator of Inuyasha) invented and redefined entire anime / manga genres. I couldn’t even imagine what modern comics would be like without icons like Gail Simone, Trina Robbins, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Roxanne Gay, and countless other female pioneers.
No matter the toxicity or hate surrounding girls and nerd culture, those are the women I look up to for strength. I think of the women writers, artists, programmers, and filmmakers who revolutionized their field, and I think of my twelve-year-old self playing Super Metroid on the living room couch and watching Sailor Moon believing Samus and the Sailor Scouts to be the coolest warriors I had ever seen -- and quite pretty too.